Monday, December 12, 2011

The Testimony of the Tree


The Christmas Tree is one of those universal symbols of this season… it stands in front of city halls and on top of skyscrapers; and millions stand in line each year to buy one for their living room.  As my family and I were shopping for a noble fir at the local home improvement store last Saturday, I thought how amazing it would be if the line of worshipers coming to church the next day was as long as the line of customers waiting to purchase these trees! Alas, Christmas tree sales are no predictor of church attendance; nor can one  make a “biblical case” for the mandatory display and decoration of Christmas trees.  So is this just a “heathen symbol” we should avoid, as some argue, or a sacred testimony to Jesus’ birth?  I believe it's both -- and I think we should be glad that it is. Here are some "theological" reasons why...

(i) In each of us there is a longing for the Tree of Life.  If one could travel in a time machine to December 17, 500 years before Christ, and enter a Roman villa on a cold, mid-winter night, you would see something that looked strangely familiar: decorated with bits of metal and adorned with 12 candles you would see an evergreen tree, that had been placed there during the festival of Saturnalia – a celebration honoring Saturn, the Roman harvest god.  If one could travel to Northern Europe during a similar period, hundreds of years before Christ, one would find that it was the custom of the Druids (the priests of an ancient celtic nature religion), to cut down the evergreen tree and to place it in their homes as a symbol of eternal life during the winter solstice. 

A few years ago, I was invited to a “Winter Solstice Festival” that doubled as a school fundraiser. I'll never forget that bizarre experience.  There were actually unadorned evergreen trees all around the festival grounds, as a reminder of its pre-Christian roots.  Not only this, but there was a drama in which a kind of “advent wreath” was used to celebrate the cycles of nature and tell the story of the rebirth of the light!  Paganism is still alive and well. The fact that pagan and pre-Christian cultures used and still use “evergreen trees” in winter festivals could suggest to us that our own “Christmas tree” is no more than a relic of pagan tradition that should be rejected.  But before we go there…

I think we need to ask an important question, “What do these ancient pagan traditions tell us about humankind and its search for significance?”  I believe they plainly tell us that there is a longing for life and divine purpose in every human heart; a longing that is part of our creation as human beings. We see something very similar today when those who do not know God (or who do not want to know Him) are nevertheless drawn like a magnet to these symbols of life, not realizing that God longs to feed us from the Tree of Life. Genesis 2:9; and Genesis 3:22-23 speak of an evergreen tree that bore life-giving fruit: the “Tree of Life” that was God’s gift to humankind.  In the garden paradise of Eden, God planted this tree; and makes it clear that he fully intended for human beings to eat from it and be sustained by its fruit forever; but that was not to be. The Scriptures tell us that, though God intended for us to eat of the Tree of Life, we turned from Him and began to walk in the shadow of the Tree of Death.

(ii) We live in the shadow of the Tree of Death. In Romans 1:18-25 Paul speaks of how human beings substituted the worship of the Creator for the worship of the creature. Many peoples in the ancient world worshiped nature, the return of the sun, and the gods of agriculture.  Today, many of us worship money, success and pleasure in the same way.  Not knowing the true God, the Giver of the Tree of Life, they fashioned gods out of dead trees and worshiped them; and though they could not re-create the Tree of Life, they learned how to fashion another kind of tree – what the Greeks called  xulon (xulon), a tree that could bring only death. 

The word xulon literally means, “dead wood” – and it described anything made from wood, esp. a stick, a cudgel, or a club which were used as weapons [see Theological Dictionary of the New TestamentV. 37xulon]. Xulon came to mean an instrument of restraint and punishment for slaves, madmen and prisoners (e.g., a heavy wooden collar, stocks for the feet, hands, head).  Eventually, the word xulon came to signify a “stake” or a “tree” to which criminals were fastened, and then to the Roman “cross” – an instrument of torture and suffering that brought with it a curse!  Deuteronomy 21:22-23 describes how those who were convicted of a crime punishable by death were often hung on a tree and that “…anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.” 

Here then is the story of the human condition.  God desires to give us the Tree of Life, but we choose the Tree of Death!  I’m going to purposely avoid mentioning the most tragic examples of that choice this year, and share just a few of the more ridiculous examples from Christmases past.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports that when two men in San Raphael were offended by each other’s gifts, a fight broke out; there were flying flowerpots which landed them them both in the hospital.
  • The LA Times told of 20 year old Brandi Nicole Nason who was also less than pleased with her former stepmother’s gift.  Nason was accused of setting her stepmother’s house on fire with a Molotov cocktail that caused $200,000 damage on Christmas Day.
  • And when a man in Victoria, BC grumbled to a woman that the load of gifts in his arms was heavier than the tree she was carrying, how did she respond?  She beat him so hard with her Christmas tree that she was arrested.

John writes: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  That darkness was never deeper than when Jesus the Messiah, who opened the eyes of the blind, and taught us to love even our enemies, was himself handed over and crucified on the Tree of DeathPeter would never forget the day when he stood in its shadow.  In Acts 10: 39ff. he says that “We are witnesses to all that He did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.  They put Him to death by hanging him on a tree (literally, a xulon.…” But the good news is, Peter does not end there.  He goes on…  “They put Him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.”  

(iii) In other words, Jesus redeemed the Tree of Death by transforming it into the Tree of Life...  
Christ’s death on “the tree” has meant a removal of the curse of sin, and the gift of eternal life for all who trust in him. Paul puts it this way: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” Gal. 3:13. I want to be clear that Paul speaks of the Law as both a blessing and a curse; a blessing to those who obey its commands and a curse to those who turn from them; life to those who walk in the truth of its words; and death to those who ignore them.  Humankind has rejected God’s commands and so lives under the shadow of death. Yet Christ who knew no sin, willingly died on the tree and took upon himself the very curse of death that should have been our own so that we might be freed from sin’s power and alive to God.  That he really did take upon himself that curse, says Paul, is evidenced by the fact that he died on the accursed tree like a common criminal (Deut. 21:22-23) and then rose again from the dead.  

I began by saying that in pre-Christian times one might find in a Roman household during mid-winter something very much like a “Christmas tree” – an evergreen decorated with bits of metal and candles.  But what you would not have found in those Roman households was a cross hanging on the wall.  That’s because the cross was an actual instrument of fear, torture, and violent death.  It would have been as likely to see a Roman household with a cross on the wall as an electric chair in someone’s living room today.

Yet get this: in very early Christian art, the cross is used as a symbol – not of death – but of life!  In fact, in early Christian art, there is a close relationship between the image of the cross and the Tree of Life; the living trunk of the cross bearing branches and leaves.  That which was a symbol of torture, death and oppression for centuries was utterly changed into a symbol of life. Listen to Rev. 22: 1-2: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the LambOn either side of the river is the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

Friends, consider this incredible possibility: that Christ is our “Tree of Life” – the One who conquered sin and death on the cross and offers healing and redemption to all who trust in him….Should his followers place an evergreen tree in their homes or churches, even though this custom has roots in pagan worship and secular tradition?  I say, “Yes!” just as his followers often display crosses in their homes: both were pagan symbols before Christ’s birth; and both have been utterly transformed by the power of His indestructible life!   
I wonder, would the Christ-child, if he sat beneath our sparkling tree, condemn as crass and empty all he saw? Or might he laugh and cheer and clap his hands with joy to see his miracle take place again and life become abundant shared in love?  --  J. Barrie Shepherd in A Child Is Born
When faithful Christians light the Christmas tree, they’re celebrating Jesus’ victory of life over death; they’re celebrating His power to purify what has been profaned; and that those who delight in his word and walk in his ways are like evergreen trees, in the words of Psalm 1:3, “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither.”  So let us give thanks then that through God's Son, the Terrible Cross, the Tree of Death, has been changed forever into the Wonderful Cross, the Tree of Life!

Heavenly Father, with more wonder than that of little children who kneel beneath the Christmas tree, we kneel beneath the Wondrous Cross -- the instrument of death and despair which your Son transformed into the mighty Tree of Life when He bore the penalty for our sins in His own body, freed us from sin’s curse, and gave us power to walk as his disciples.  Gracious God, remind us again this Christmas that you sanctify what is ordinary by your Spirit; make fruitful and evergreen those who are nourished by your Word, and raise all those who trust in You from death to eternal life.  For this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 John  5:11). All praise and honor, glory and power, be Yours, forever and ever.  Amen!

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